The last time I was in New York I was with a class visiting a wide range of museums and galleries. We saw the Whitney Biennial, went to MOMA, the New Museum, and many more. The most unique show I saw was Testimonials: 100 Years of Popular Expression at El Museo del Barrio. Our host was Deborah Cullen, the curator of the show, who had been part of the museum since 1997. During our visit, she walked my group through the show and explained that the work was all pulled from the museums permanent collection or on loan from private collectors. Testimonials set itself apart from other shows we observed on our trip because the majority of the artists were not traditionally trained makers.
This temporary show began with an artist named Ejlat Fewer who documented New York’s Puerto Rican community and nooks between neighborhoods. He photographed what these communities chose to do with the empty spaces between New York skyscrapers. These images capture personal shrines, gardens and gathering spaces. The photographs gave us a unique view into this private community that has a lot of vibrant personality. It was special to see what is behind the large buildings that make up what most people know as New York.
Our tour then led to a series of sculptures that Gregorio Marzán, a NewYork based Puerto Rican sculptor, created for his grandchildren as toys. He made animals and other items out of any found materials he had such as foil, cloth and household items. The sculptures were donated to the museum after he passed away by his family. It was wonderful to see that these sculptures were actually used by his grandchildren from the wear and tear that was visible. It’s refreshing that the museum is displaying someone’s natural talent made from fascination, imagination and pure love.
Further into the show was a grid of pano drawings that are made from ink on handkerchiefs. These particular drawings were made by inmates from a San Antonio, Texas prison. Mostly black ink on white handkerchief, the drawings were very detailed and animated. Some of the pieces seem to relay their history and dreams out to there loved ones where others appear to be telling a story of a past life or experience. Being from Texas and having a cousin that has been in and out of jail, this series was significant to me. The drawings resembled the tattoos that my cousin has covered his body from head to toe. Looking at the pano drawings, I kept thinking about how people create their own artistic expression through the materials that they have and say so much.
The final section of the show displayed cloth cacti in clay pots made from southern states border patrol uniforms. The work dealt with the Mexico border and the crossing of immigrants into the United States. Since I have also spent a lot of my life visiting South Texas where the patrols do make their presence known, there are numerous checkpoints and the landscape becomes denser with desert like plants, the work was significant to me. Margarita Cabrera is the woman that holds the workshops for female immigrants to share there stories and makes these cacti.
The unique array of mediums presented in the show was inspiring to see. As a curator, Deborah Cullen was very thoughtful in her choices and display of the show. The intent of the show that art is all around us was a necessary reminder for me as we saw a multitude of contemporary art, well known artists and exhibitions, and many museums.